Invest in infrastructure to retain Africa’s scientists


African countries lack the infrastructure and entrepreneurial support needed to retain science graduates, thus impacting scientific independence and contributing to the continent’s so called ‘brain drain’, a conference has heard.

The Science in Africa UnConference, held in London last month (20 July) by the Planet Earth Institute, aimed to promote the successes and address the challenges of the continent’s use of science and technology for development.

‘We need to couple training with investment in infrastructure and support for entrepreneurship so we can create jobs and careers that make science attractive.’

Kelly Chibale, University of Cape Town (UCT)

‘African-led innovation from a research and development perspective has historically been hampered by a critical mass of skilled scientists, as well as very poor access to infrastructure and enabling technologies,’ says Kelly Chibale, a professor of organic chemistry at the South Africa-based University of Cape Town (UCT). ‘We need to couple training with investment in infrastructure and support for entrepreneurship so we can create jobs and careers that make science attractive.’

Chibale is the founder and director of the Drug Discovery and Development Centre, H3D at the UCT. H3D scientists were involved in the recent discovery of the promising new antimalarial drug candidate.

Chibale says that Africa does not have a lack of scientists, but lacks the enabling infrastructure. If this were improved, he says that scientists would be able to work more effectively, projects would access funding from abroad and Africa would be able to attract and retain talent.

‘By attracting talent and allowing people to put to work the training they’ve received, we can reverse brain drain,’ he says.

Recruiting and keeping science graduates should also involve supporting educators, adds Senamile Masango, a nuclear physics postgraduate student at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa and a member of the first African team to lead an experiment at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, Switzerland.

‘The continent should come up with grassroots programmes that encourage and keep science teachers in villages, and groom young people for science careers,’ she says.

According to Youssef Travaly, director of programmes and content for the Next Einstein Foundation, a platform that connects science, society and policy in Africa and the rest of the world, human capital and infrastructure must be combined with government support.

Policymakers must build a road map to show a vision of the most promising areas of science where they can invest, and develop a well-balanced portfolio of people with skills ranging from researchers to developers and engineers,’ Travaly says.

He adds that the focus should be on offering pan-African grants that involve knowledge transfer and include opportunities for public-private partnerships.

The H3D in South Africa is an example of the value of public-private partnerships, according to Chibale, noting that  70% of the centre’s funding is foreign, attracted in part because the South African government made a commitment to match outside funding for the project.

“This is a good example for the rest of Africa to follow. Investors will see that our governments support us and provide us with infrastructure and are willing to put cash into our projects,” he says.

Written by Laura Owings. This story was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.



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